Monday, August 20, 2007

Saddlebums Interview: Brian Garfield

Best known for the classic crime revenge novel Death Wish and the series of movies it inspired, Brian Garfield (1939) is a versatile and accomplished writer. Having published nearly 70 books throughout a career spanning nearly five decades, he has been nominated for and won numerous literary prizes. These include the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) for his novel Hopscotch (1976). The story was the basis for a movie of the same name starring Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson, which in turn was nominated for a Golden Globe, the Writers Guild of America Award and yet another Edgar.

Boasting over 20 million copies of his books published worldwide, other notable Garfield works are
The Thousand Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians, a nonfiction finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History, and Wild Times, a finalist for the American Book Award and the basis for a television miniseries starring Sam Elliot and Dennis Hopper. Most recently, his crime novel Death Sentence (1975) was adapted to film by director James Wan (the Saw trilogy) in a 20th Century Fox production starring Kevin Bacon, John Goodman and Kelly Preston.

Garfield’s resume, however, is just as accomplished when it comes to Westerns. A past president of both the MWA and the
Western Writers of America, his work in the genre includes the Golden Spur-nominated novel Arizona (1969) and the nonfiction handbook Western Films: A Complete Guide (1973). On the eve of the release of Death Sentence, Garfield took time to talk with Saddlebums about his career as well as the past, present and future of Westerns.

Can you tell us more about your experience working in movies? How have you felt so far about the screen versions of works such as Death Wish and The Last Hard Men?

At this writing, I haven’t yet seen the new 20th Century Fox movie from my novel Death Sentence, but I’ve seen clips and have studied Ian Jeffers’ shooting script. The movie may be too gory for my own taste, but it makes the point I wanted it to make, and everything I hear about it from reporters who’ve seen it is that it’s an exciting and disturbing movie. That sounds good to me. But a writer of books has to keep in mind that a movie is not his/hers – writers do not make movies unless they write, produce and direct the movies. A movie is created by hundreds of people. If you want a story to be your own, write a book. In that context, I'm happy with most of the film adaptations. I didn't like the sequels to Death Wish and The Stepfather, but beyond getting paid for the rights, the sequels weren’t “mine” in any real sense. I loved making the film of Hopscotch, partly because the director and the other producers and the actors and I worked together on it and it became clear that we all had the same movie in mind. That doesn’t happen often, but it’s great when it does. Bottom line – I’ve been very lucky with films (nearly twenty of them have been produced) and I don’t agree with those who say, “Isn’t it terrible what Hollywood did to your book.” Hollywood hasn’t done anything to my books – the books are right over here on the shelf, untouched. My wife and dog and banker and I are glad all the movies got made, and actually I do like quite a few of them – as movies.

I’m particularly fond of a couple of made-for-TV movies and a mini-series that haven’t been shown much on cable (we’re trying to rectify that) – Necessity, Legs, Relentless, and particularly Wild Times, the mini-series about the Wild West Shows. We used early Edison footage of the Buffalo Bill show to replicate the arenas and events. Producer Doug Netter was a New Yorker, and said since I was a Westerner he wondered if I’d like to select the actors for most of the leading roles. That was a rare privilege and I was delighted when Sam Elliott, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Penny Peyser, Pat Hingle, L.Q. Jones, Dennis Hopper, and several other of my favorite actors from Westerns agreed to appear in it. I think its Wild West Show scenes are among the best ever filmed (Sam Elliott spent MONTHS teaching himself and his horse to perform dressage.) I worked on location with that movie, and with Hopscotch and with The Last Hard Men and with a few others; met a lot of great people – stayed in touch with James Coburn and a few others – and wouldn’t have had it any other way. For this movie lover, it was educational and fascinating. But I gave up being a hotshot movie producer after ten years’ intense and tense effort got only one and a half movies produced (Hopscotch was the whole one; the half was The Stepfather – a movie our company developed, but Don Westlake wrote the screenplay and we had to sell the “package” to get it produced, so I wasn’t involved in the actual making of it. I think it’s a splendid thriller, and am happy my name’s on a bit of it. But producing films eats time and energy. I like the movies, but would rather spend the time writing books.

What is the current productions status of Manifest Destiny?

There’s an excellent screenplay by Kirk Ellis, from my book, and it looks as if actor Steve Zahn will play Theodore Roosevelt. (I hope he does – he looks perfect in the TR get-up he improvised). Karen and Howard Baldwin of Baldwin Entertainment Group (“BEG”), the producers of “Ray”, are behind the current “Death Sentence” movie and they’re also the producers who have Manifest Destiny in development, and they're tenacious about getting projects on the screen, so I’m very hopeful it’ll be done properly. It’s not yet clear whether it’ll be a cable mini-series or a feature film.

“I don’t agree with those who say, “Isn’t it terrible what Hollywood did to your book.” Hollywood hasn’t done anything to my books – the books are right over here on the shelf, untouched.”

What led you to write a novel about Theodore Roosevelt? Was it difficult to capture in writing the personality of such an individual, an almost archetypically heroic figure in American history?

I can’t remember the impetus. It may have been reading David McCullough’s biography of the young TR. I remember developing enough of an interest to go to libraries to try and find out what else had been published about TR’s adventures in the Badlands. There’d been quite a bit of nonfiction, most of it published many years earlier – TR’s own memoirs, for example, and a few biographies of him by friends like Hagedorn, mainly written in the 1920s. So far as I could find at the time, no one had written a novel about TR in the Wild West. Later I learned there had been at least three or four, including a novel by Oakley Hall that was more or less based on the subject, rather as Hall’s novel Warlock was suggested by the Tombstone events of the early 1880s (Wyatt Earp and all that). Competing with Oakley Hall was not among my ambitions, but I wasn’t doing a mythic and imaginative reconstruction of a legend; I was trying to write the story of the real TR. All the characters are real people, doing the things they seem to have done in reality. It’s a novel only in the sense that I provided narrative descriptions and made up much of the dialogue, and compressed some of the events (for example, compressing numerous actual Stockmen’s meetings held over several years into one). Nearly all TR’s dialogue in the novel is drawn from his own writings and from things written about him by his contemporaries. I did change the order of a few events, mainly because it seemed neater to compress the time-frame of events that actually had taken place over a span of several years. But TR was unique. You don’t want to mess around with a magnificent character like that. I suppose it was a bit intimidating to write fiction about him, but in many ways the book is narrative-novelized nonfiction. It’s not a made-up story about a historical character; it’s as true as I could make it – a story about a real, and great, young man (I do know the difference between fiction and fact, however; my current book, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, about a British rogue who fooled everybody from Lawrence of Arabia to Churchill to Ian Fleming, is a biography that contains no fiction at all except for the myths Richard Meinertzhagen made up about his own life – myths that bamboozled entire generations of historians, intelligence specialists and scientists).

You clearly have an affinity for the Western genre, not only because of your novels but also because you authored a seminal work on Western cinema: Western Films: A Complete Guide. Where did your interest in writing that book stem from?

It was like the impetus behind my earlier nonfiction book, The Thousand-Mile War, which is a history of the Second World War in Alaska. Nobody else had written one. It seemed to me there ought to be a book that attempted to encompass ALL the “A”-Western movies of the talkie era (with summary chapters about silent films etc.). It was a labor of madness, really. I started the work several years before the advent of the VCR, so in many instances I had to find a print of a movie (The Museum of Modern Art in New York has an excellent collection) and view it with pencil in hand. My wife Bina has a pet name for the book – “More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Western Movies” – and she probably is right, but I had started the damn thing and by gum I was determined to finish it, even though most of the movies I had to sit through were less than wonderful (There are truly great Westerns, but let’s face it, most movies in ANY genre are not great).

“Persistence paid off (both my agent’s and mine), but an important ingredient was luck. Isn’t that always the case in the arts?”

How did you to start writing Westerns? Have you considered writing another novel in the genre?

I grew up in Arizona. A friend was Fred Glidden, a marvelous man who wrote bestselling Western novels and popular stories for the slick magazines (Saturday Evening Post and so forth). He was kind enough to take me under his wing and treat me as if I were a grown-up writer, even though I was only 15 or so. At the same time, I was blessed in having a high school English teacher, Don Everitt, who now is 101 years old and still raising hell in Tucson. “Mr. Everitt” encouraged me in my determined desire to write stories in place of class themes. By the time I graduated high school I’d already written a couple of (REALLY bad) Western novels. They went directly to the trash bins. A couple years later I was in the Army and, without realizing what havoc he was causing, somebody assigned me to a stock-records office in the Presidio of San Francisco. It took about an hour a day to do the job. The rest of the day, the typewriter was mine, and I wrote away; when I was still in the Army I didn’t mention all that, because they’d have found a busier job for me and they might have demanded a royalty on the things I wrote on their typewriter. . . . The first novel that got published was one I wrote while in the Army when I was 18. Against high odds I managed to acquire a gullible literary agent, who persisted in pushing the dog-eared manuscript at every publisher in New York until finally, two or three years later, she managed to sell it to Thomas Bouregy’s Avalon Books. By then I was out of the Army and traveling as an itinerant guitar player in a jazz / rock-n-roll band. I thought of the $300 book sale as a triumph. So when the excitement of doing American Bandstand wore off, and we disbanded the combo, I wrote more books. They, too, sold. I’m not sure why – they were very poor – but I was being paid (on-the-job training) so I just kept at it. Persistence paid off (both my agent’s and mine), but an important ingredient was luck. Isn’t that always the case in the arts?

What are your thoughts about the present state of the Western genre and what do you think the future holds for the Western story?

I’m pretty out-of-date to come up to an answer to that one. I don’t keep up with current publications, except for novels by friends or nonfiction on subjects that grab me. I admit, however, that I’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing a light “polish” on a good screenplay by Anton Diether based on my Western novel Tripwire. Many of the trappings we associate with the great Westerns – particularly the face-to-face duel in the guise of a quick-draw gunfight – never happened in reality. It’s difficult to sustain that kind of mythology in an age when so many people know better. There are lots of great true stories about the Old West that can be freshly tapped by novelists and historians alike, and it’s being done at intervals, but I feel – not without regret – that the traditional Western, as we used to know it, is not likely to make a serious comeback, either in print or on film... About Western movies, we published my Western Films guide back in the early 80s, when the movie appetite for Westerns seemed virtually dead. Since then there’ve been sporadic attempts to revive it, and there’ve been a few really good movies (Tombstone comes to mind – it might have been a great film, if they’d left out its ludicrous opening sequence) but mostly Hollywood seems to think of the Western as a bygone genre because the agrarian values reflected in classic Western novels and movies are no longer reflective of our urbanized society. That's probably an oversimplification, but there’s truth in it: in most of the Westerns of the first half of the 20th century, you could tell the good guys from the bad guys by their beliefs and behavior. Those good guys usually won because they were good guys who were in the right, and not simply because they could shoot faster, as the spaghetti Westerns implied. A few of the spaghetti oaters are fascinating; most of them are drivel; and I suspect their influence pretty much killed off the traditional Western movie.

Most writers are voracious readers and you are probably not the exception. What do you read for pleasure?

I read a hell of a lot, but mostly it’s nonfiction associated with our family-foundation work or with projects I'm writing. For pleasure I still enjoy re-reading John O’Hara and [W. Somerset] Maugham (short stories) and the towering 1940s Westerns of Ernest Haycox, and the magnificent rebel Edward Abbey. And I’ll read anything by Elmore Leonard or John Le CarrĂ©. But por favor, that’s just me – I’ve no desire to impose reading habits on others.

“There are lots of great true stories about the Old West that can be freshly tapped by novelists (...) but I feel – not without regret – that the traditional Western, as we used to know it, is not likely to make a serious comeback, either in print or on film. . . .”

Do you have any writing influences? How about influences in the Western genre?

Writing influences – I hope Maugham and O’Hara. Western influences – certainly my great late friend Fred (“Luke Short”) Glidden, Ernest Haycox, and especially Eugene Manlove Rhodes. Movies – the late Wendell Mayes (who wrote the movies Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, “In Harm’s Way” and – oddly? – Death Wish).

Are there any Western writers you would like to see back in print again?
Haycox and Rhodes would top my list. Also William McLeod Raine, Bart Spicer, our late pal William R. Cox – there were a lot of really good writers in the genre back in the late 1930s into the 1950s.

Are you writing anything right now? Can you tell us more about any other projects you are currently involved with?
As mentioned, I’ve fiddled a bit with the screenplay of Tripwire (a Western), and wrote a couple drafts of the screenplay for the current movie Death Sentence from my novel of the same title. At the moment I’m working on a “family memoir” (not about me; about my parents and their generation) and I’m writing a thriller (novel). I’ll write something Western as soon as I think of something that hasn’t already been done to death. Dunno if I’m smart enough to think of anything like that but it’s worth a try.

What is the greatest satisfaction of your writing career? Is there anything else you still feel you need to accomplish?

Survival is the greatest satisfaction, especially when you find you still have a market after nearly 50 years in the business. I’ve changed a lot; so have the publishing business and the movie business; and we haven’t changed in the same ways, necessarily. So I’m very fortunate to be here, still kicking. The thing I feel I still would like to accomplish is to write a book that’s better than any of its sixty-odd predecessors. That may not be in the cards, but I’ll keep dealing anyway. Thanks for asking.


dgb said...

Very nice interview. It's good to know that another western from Garfield isn't entirely out of the question. And I hate to argue with his wife, but the book on western movies isn't "more than you need to know," but "exactly what you need to know." I keep my copy right near my TV.

I was glad to read that Garfield still has affection for the novels of Luke Short. I wish his stuff could come back into print in paperback. I'm currently reading "Coroner Creek" in a large print edition, the only one I could find. (I used to hate large print but as I age I find it more convenient. I wonder why.)

Anyway, thanks for an interesting interview. Keep up the good work.

And thanks for the link to Bookgasm, for which I've written a couple of western reviews. I hope to do more in future.

Gonzalo B. said...

Thanks, DGB. I also think that film guide remains pretty useful and informative. As for Bookgasm, I read that website regularly. I don’t know about Ben (the other administrator of this blog) but Bookgasm is actually one of the sites I had in mind when creating this one.

Bill Crider said...

Great stuff. Glad to see it.

Saddle Bums said...

Thanks for the kind words. There's much more in store so stay tuned.

Ben Boulden said...

Bookgasm is one of my favorite review stops on the web. I especially enjoy Bruce Grossman's Bullets, Broads, Blackmail, and Bombs--I don't read much of the novels he reviews anymore, but his reviews always make me remember when I did. And it feels good to be thirteen again for a few seconds.


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